Was Ellen G. White A Plagiarist?

“This Work Is Of God, Or It Is Not”

From the editors

For those who believe, no proof is necessary, and for those who choose not to, no proof is possible.

For decades friends and critics alike have discussed Ellen White’s use of literary sources in her writings. Critics have charged that her “borrowing” amounted to plagiarism and copyright infringement. Friends have said No, her “borrowing” should be classified as “fair use.” So intense was the debate three decades ago that F. D. Nichol in his book Ellen G. White and Her Critics devoted 64 pages (pages 403-467) to a discussion of the various issues involved. EGWPlag 7.1

Until 1981, however, no thoroughly researched opinion was available from the legal profession. All parties in the debate had been, in one sense, laymen—ministers, educators, physicians. Now, however, for the first time a top-flight attorney has spent about 300 hours reviewing the copyright scene from 1790 to 1915, has studied carefully the definitions of plagiarism, has examined Ellen White’s use of sources, and has rendered his opinion: “Ellen G. White was not a plagiarist and her works did not constitute copyright infringement/piracy.” 2 EGWPlag 7.2

We are not so naive as to think that this extraordinarily frank and unequivocal statement will end the discussion. Another attorney with equally respectable credentials might study the question and come to a less firm conclusion or to a different one. Even when arguing from identical data, attorneys often differ. If this were not so there would be no need for courts and judges. Of course, judges also differ sometimes, even the Justices who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. At times not only a majority decision is rendered but also a minority decision. The supreme law of the land rarely is what all nine Justices say it is; often it is what only five of them say it is. EGWPlag 7.3

Mr. Ramik’s 27-page opinion quotes heavily from court cases dealing with copyright infringement and plagiarism. We have spent considerable time reading and studying these cases. In the case of Emerson v. Davies et al., Justice Story, who, according to Mr. Ramik, “is recognized as the most influential judge in the area of copyright law in the era in question,” concluded that “‘the question is not, whether the materials which are used are entirely new, and have never been used before; or even that they have never been used before for the same purpose. The true question is, whether the same plan, arrangement and combination of materials have been used before for the same purpose or for any other purpose... [The author] may have gathered hints for his plan and arrangement, or parts of his plan and arrangement, from existing and known sources. He may have borrowed much of his material from others, but if they are combined in a different manner from what was in use before, and a fortiori, if his plan and arrangement are real improvements upon the existing modes, he is entitled to a copyright in the book embodying such improvement.’” EGWPlag 7.4

In the case of Lawrence v. Dana et al., Justice Storrow acknowledged: “‘Few judges have devised safer rules upon the subject than Judge Story. He held that... if so much is taken that the value of the original is sensibly diminished, or the labors of the original author are substantially, to an injurious extent, appropriated by another, that is sufficient in point of law to constitute infringement; that, in deciding questions of this sort, courts must “look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects of the original work.”’” EGWPlag 7.5

Attorney Ramik comments: “The manner of taking, the extent of the taking, the intent involved, and the damage done are all factors from which might be determined the existence or nonexistence of plagiarism.” EGWPlag 7.6

He quotes from Justice Story in the decision of Emerson v. Davies et al.: “‘I think it may be laid down as the clear result of the authorities in cases of this nature, that the true test of piracy (infringement of copyright) or not is to ascertain whether the defendant has, in fact, used the plan, arrangements and illustrations of the plaintiff, as the model of his own book, with colorable alterations and variations only to disguise the use thereof; or whether his work is the result of his own labor, skill, and use of common materials and common sources of knowledge, open to all men, and the resemblances are either accidental or arising from the nature of the subject. In other words, whether the defendant’s book is, quoad hoc, a servile or evasive imitation of the plaintiff’s work, or a bona fide original compilation from other common or independent sources.’” EGWPlag 7.7

We have these statements to point up the fact that even those who are laymen, so far as the legal profession is concerned, by comparing legal standards with the way Ellen White used sources are virtually certain to arrive at identical conclusions with those of Attorney Ramik. EGWPlag 7.8